The Truth About The Indy 500's Wild Snake Pit

If you hear a mention of the Indy 500, there's a good chance you'll be thinking of the race; after all, it's not called "The Greatest Spectacle in Racing" for nothing, right? The smell of rubber and the roar of the engines as a bunch of cars whirl around the famous track, each of the drivers hoping to see the checkered flag first. That's probably the image that comes to mind throughout the month of May. Or, at least, that's the case if you're a fan of motorsports.

As it turns out, the Indy 500 isn't known only for the legendary race that takes place at the Indianapolis Motor Speedway. See, the track and the race have a long and storied history; it's that history that gives rise to plenty of traditions — the race winner taking a victory swig of milk, for example. And one of those longtime traditions associated with the event is called the Snake Pit.

But the Snake Pit isn't quite like other Indy 500 traditions – this isn't drinking the milk or kissing the bricks. Really, in a lot of ways, it's not all that associated with the actual race that much (at least, not anymore), and it's got quite the colorful reputation, to put it lightly. Here's the truth about the Indy 500's wild Snake Pit.

The history of the Snake Pit

If you want to know, in the most general sense, what the Indy 500's Snake Pit is, well, picture an absolutely wild event that's somewhere between an insane tailgate party and an equally insane frat party (and a music festival, at least in more recent times). Then, add into that the fact that Deadspin likens it to hell on Earth, and you've got a general sense of just what this infamous Snake Pit is.

And it's been like that for a pretty long time, at this point. While it's true that, according to Fox 59, it did come from less raucous origins, starting out as a pretty low-key party at turn one of the speedway in the 1920s, within a couple more decades, things became decidedly less mild mannered. In fact, as explained by F.C. Tucker Company, by the 1950s, the Snake Pit had begun to transform, building up the reputation it would have in the decades to come — one of drunkenness and debauchery, in other words. 

That said, it would still take until 1961 for the Snake Pit to actually earn its name from the Indianapolis News (via IndyStar), which first used the moniker to refer to the "stretches along the southwest turn ... filled with sunbathers, smoochers and picnickers." Over the course of the next handful of years, the Snake Pit only continued to grow into its rather fitting name.

People aren't at the Indy 500 for the Indy 500

See, you'd think that if people were attending the Indy 500, you'd expect that they had gone all that way and bought tickets to actually see the race. But, well, that's not exactly the case, especially when you get the Snake Pit involved. And given its history of rowdy behavior, is it that much of a surprise that the Snake Pit audience isn't quite the same as the racing audience?

Of course, there are all the Snake Pit goings-ons to base this off of — between the drinking games and music and company-sponsored parties, who has time for a race? But you can get more specific than that, with visitors to the Indianapolis Motor Speedway directly confirming this fact. As quoted by Deadspin, a man in the grandstands explained that, "Indy is just a party that happens to have a race surrounding it." Another Indy 500 attendee added, "Most of the people who come to this could give a f*** less about racing," and indeed, it seemed that at any given point, the fun-loving Snake Pit guests had absolutely no idea who was actually leading the famous race. It's likely enough that very little of the race itself was committed to the memory of anyone at the Snake Pit, with one woman asking her apparent boyfriend, "You can remember the last 500 race?" (via Indianapolis Monthly).

Who needs a race when you can have the most epic tailgate party in the history of time, right?

It was always a muddy time

In the 1970s and '80s, the Snake Pit was a dirty place to be, and that's not any sort of euphemism, at least in this case. No, it was quite literally a dirty place to be, courtesy of a whole lot of mud.

Taking a look at pictures taken from the time (as provided by IndyStar) reveals just how much of a joy the mud itself was. In one instance, a couple can be seen together, all smiles and about to embrace, as mud caked their bodies and hair. And aside from the individual moments of fun, Snake Pit attendees apparently embraced the location they were in, partaking in their own races. Well, mudslide races, of course, people sliding across the slippery ground and celebrating when they crossed their makeshift finish lines first.

A Snake Pit regular was also quoted by the Daily Mail, saying, "People would pour beer on the ground and make a mudslide, get all muddy, and take their clothes off." And given just how much alcohol was ever-present there, it only makes sense that there was also plenty of mud. If nothing else, that regular didn't seem to imply that these dirty, muddy incidents were rare events by any means.

Streaking and nudity were common

In some ways, it's not even all that surprising to know that streaking and nudity were quite the rampant thing at the Snake Pit, particularly back in the 1970s. After all, it has reputation of the biggest, wildest tailgate party you could ever imagine.

IndyStar published an article filled with pictures from this particularly wild time in the history of the Snake Pit. In one, a man is standing on top of a car, just barely covered by another man seated in front of him, though it's clear enough that he's not wearing a single piece of clothing. Then there are multiple images of women lifting their tops and exposing their breasts to the camera. And, of course, the photo of a man being tossed into the air – completely nude, but seemingly having the time of his life – deserves to be mentioned here.

There are a couple of memorable stories, too. According to a Snake Pit regular (via Daily Mail), here's how things generally went: as the day got muddier and people got drunker, they would, of course, choose to lose their clothes. But there was an even more, well, exciting, incident. Per Verve Times, on May 11, 1974, poor weather put a stop to on-track events, and without any cars whizzing around, it was time for the people to have their fun. A whole group of streakers burst onto the track, entirely drunk as a riot broke out, overwhelming the police, and one man (naked, of course) even managed to climb the control tower and steal the official checkered flag — before falling off and hurting himself.

There's never been a shortage of alcohol

If there's only a single thing you take away about the Indy 500's Snake Pit, it's this part. There's historically been a whole ton of alcohol there every year, and the race-goers clearly have a really good time with it.

Looking at pictures of the scene (via IndyStar) leaves little doubt that there was plenty of drinking at the scene. Deadspin elaborates on some of the shenanigans you're likely to find in the Snake Pit, including plenty of drinking games you might not have ever heard of. That is, unless you know what's up with a woman being held upside down by her ankles with head dunked into a cooler full of ice water — and all of that preceded her being released, only to down a beer and fall into a kiddie pool. It's certainly a game that was born out of a fair bit of creativity, but no fear for the less-adventurous Snake Pit attendees. According to the Daily Mail, there's always a round of beer pong to be had.

Honestly, though, the prevalence of alcohol can be summed up entirely by a phrase you can find around the Snake Pit: "the Greatest Spectacle in Drinking." What more do you need to know?

Ambulances aren't an uncommon sight

The Snake Pit has always been a scene of complete chaos, and a venue that's been the scene for some actual riots (via IndyStar) would definitely be the destination for more than a few ambulances over the years. There are the relatively mild incidents that require some medical attention — heatstroke and alcohol poisoning, per Deadspin – but things don't end there. Verve Times described some of the more severe incidents, including a time when a drunken streaker actually managed to climb the control tower, steal the official checkered flag, then fall off of the tower, an accident that did, understandably, result in greater injuries. Then, there was also a riot that took place on track, and the ensuing fight between the rioters and the police left a total of 30 injured.

But if you want to know the worst medical emergency that happened at the Snake Pit, that probably has to be the time that someone actually died. As reported by the Indianapolis Star, the incident took place on May 23, 1980. With the Snake Pit having been somewhat converted to a parking lot some years earlier, 19-year-old Timothy Scott Vail was trying to re-enter the area with his Jeep, having left earlier to get some gas. Vail had already been caught for underage drinking the day before, and upon learning that he'd have to pay to actually drive back in, he backed up, and then suddenly drove forward at a high speed. In the process, he tried to swerve and avoid a large puddle, only for the car to spin out of control. Vail was thrown through the windshield as the Jeep flipped forward, crushing his skull under its weight.

There's an (unofficial) dress code

Obviously, with the Snake Pit being what it is, there's no actual, official dress code. But, all the same, if you were to take a trip up and down the Snake Pit, you'd definitely see something of a trend when it comes to the clothing choices of the celebratory race-goers. That trend? The good old red, white, and blue. Yeah, per Deadspin, American flags are everywhere you turn, emblazoned not just on all types of clothing — ranging from top hats to swimsuits — but also plates, lawn chairs, and just about anything else you can slap the stars and stripes onto. And apparently, that's more than just a coincidence or purely tradition; at this point, it's more like a competition, with one man saying, "I love everyone trying to be more American than anyone else."

Here's the thing, though: Maybe take some of this with a grain of salt. It's not just a show of patriotism that you're getting here, and in some cases, it's not just American flags waving in the sky. Rather, in one case, an older man was motoring around the Snake Pit, the Confederate flag flying above his head. And when asked about it, his only response was that it wasn't really the Confederate flag, and that the Bonnie Blue Flag (a lesser-known flag unofficially associated with the Confederacy, which the man still had printed onto his scooter) was the real Confederate flag.

Americana is one thing, but outwardly supporting the Confederacy is certainly another.

Calling it rowdy might be an understatement

While it's true that people always went (and still go) to the Snake Pit for a good time, on many an occasion, those good times would cross some questionable lines. Or, in other words, law enforcement started to get very, very involved in the action of the Snake Pit.

Plenty of images posted by IndyStar feature a number of police officers — even literal mounted cavalry units — walking the grounds among the overzealous guests, but those images only hearken back to the 1970s and '80s. As explained by another IndyStar article, that police presence was hardly a new thing at that point, with officers having been stationed there since the late 1960s, and those officers certainly saw a lot of action. There were arrests for, presumably, the normal drunken shenanigans you'd expect, but then there were the times when fans would try to climb onto the track, or when some other fans decided to try and toss a huge trash bin over the fence and in the direction of the track. As for how those incidents ended? Well, the former ended with a dramatic chase and fight scene, complete with a couple of guards throwing the offending fan into the nearby creek. As time went on, police would even carry (and use) equipment like riot batons and tear gas, while accompanied by police dogs. Yeah, things weren't pretty.

Deadspin even quoted an Indianapolis local, who said, "You see a bunch of naked people setting a couch on fire when you're seven, you tend [to] stay ... away from that." And considering flaming couches could also be paired with flaming, overturned cars, knife fights, and harassment of women, maybe staying away wasn't such a bad idea.

Things eventually started to quiet down

The Snake Pit has an incredibly colorful and storied history that's lasted multiple decades, but even something like that had to eventually come to an end. In all honesty, it's actually a bit of a surprise that it managed to last so long, being as rowdy as it always had been.

For a pretty long time, the Speedway itself did what it could to try and tame the wilder side of the Snake Pit. Per the F.C. Tucker Company, the officials in charge of the Speedway instituted a couple of changes to the Turn 1 infield (the traditional location of the Snake Pit) that they hoped would indirectly curb their more unruly guests: allowing parking, the construction of permanent bleachers in the same area in 1981, and eventually the construction of a permanent road course. According to IndyStar, by the mid-1990s, the Snake Pit had been moved to the Turn 4 infield instead, and with the new location came a slightly more subdued atmosphere.

It was a win for the owners of the Speedway, at least according to Snake Pit regulars, who told Deadspin that the higher ups had been trying to make sure their track was more family-friendly. That said, the fight isn't exactly over, with new 2022 regulations saying that only water would be allowed into the Snake Pit — no coolers, and thus, no alcohol, either, per WTHR. (Although it should be mentioned that the speedway retracted that decision a few months later, so coolers and all the old staples of the Snake Pit are allowed once again.)

Nowadays, it's more of a music festival

As the Indianapolis Motor Speedway did its best to crack down on the wild festivities happening in the Snake Pit, it actually kind of succeeded, with the most violent traditions of the Snake Pit having died out in the mid-1990s (via IndyStar). Yet, the Snake Pit was still iconic in its own way, and ultimately, the Speedway moved to honor it.

Rather than killing the Snake Pit entirely, in 2010, the decision was made to revive it, albeit in a new and more palatable form. According to the F.C. Tucker Company, the Snake Pit was officially given a new home — the Turn 3 infield — as well as a new identity. Rather than a completely unhinged and unmoderated celebration of cheap beer, it would instead function as an officially sanctioned music festival. By the 2011 Indy 500, the new event was up and running, and it's been pulling in bigger and bigger audiences every year, drawn by famous names in the music industry; the 2022 event promises stars like Steve Aoki and deadmau5, and those names speak for themselves.

Sure, looking at more recent photos of the Snake Pit shows that attendees are decidedly more clothed and less muddy (via IndyStar), but the wild energy has still persisted to this day.